Much to everyone’s surprise, the U.S. president seems set to lead the dance until the music stops. What’s more, his voters are increasingly enthusiastic and his opposition is paralyzed.
Ronald Reagan earned the nickname “the Teflon President” during the 1980s because nothing seemed to affect him or hamper his popularity, despite his mistakes and a number of scandals. Is Trump cut from the same cloth? Everything seems to incriminate him, from his militaristic showboating, his insults against black people, women, immigrants, and journalists, his incoherent attitude with world leaders, his disregard for justice, his financial dealings, and his suspect relationship with Putin. Be that as it may, one third of Americans — those who voted for him — continue to offer their unwavering support. A third does not a majority make, but as this particular third is solid and the opposition is dispersed, Trump is difficult to unseat.
It could even be said his misdemeanors are the reason he has stayed popular. Flying in the face of predictions — and hopes, for some – he has not become an ordinary president. Instead, he is still unpresidential to the point of caricature, continuing to be the populist orator he was as a candidate. On the night of his election he embodied the “revenge of the white male,” vengeance wreaked against cultural minorities, feminists, progressive ideas, and globalization. And nothing has changed. He remains unaffected by the real world and misinformed by Fox News — his only source of information.
His increasingly enthusiastic voters have now formed something akin to a fan club and adore their leader’s escapades. The POTUS speaks like them and thinks like them, any racism included. This language is the key to Trump’s success. Furthermore, the rest of the world is so disoriented by his non-conformism, lies, and tantrums, that governments in the West and beyond are paralyzed. All have spent the last 18 months switching between attempts to appease the beast — in vain — and an inability to adopt a shared line of resistance, whether on NATO, trade, Iran, China, or North Korea. Trump is leading the dance, and everyone positions themselves accordingly.
A United Fan Club
Opposition in the United States is equally aghast and clumsy. Daily attacks against Trump’s lies, contradictions, and poor spelling only unite his fan club further. This opposition currently has no leader, no project, and no strategy. The disarray in the Democrat camp has bolstered the party’s left-wing factions which, while barely socialist, are too left-leaning for the Americans, thereby also playing into Trump’s hands.
Perhaps the president’s popularity is down to the spectacular success of the U.S. economy? This is certainly a factor, but not the only one. The current annual growth of around 4% and unemployment below 4% are both records in American history. But did Trump have anything to do with it? Governments have little influence over growth and employment in market economies, but they can hold sway over the fringes. His statements and stances — even more so than his limited actions — are music to the ears of business players eager to do away with environmental and social safeguards.
These people are delighted to hear the United States is returning to wild capitalism through economic nationalism. As a result, they are investing and hiring a little more than if Trump was not in power. This economic prosperity shores up social inequalities that would be unacceptable in Europe, but the fan club is comprised of many modest Americans and its members make do. After all, Trump keeps fueling their hope that they too may one day become billionaires like him.
Of course, the tide may well turn overnight and see the U.S.A. return to the context of 2008. Unpredictable cycles are characteristic of the American economy. But we can be sure the fan club would remain united behind Trump even in a crisis. He would simply place responsibility on Wall Street, and it would be too easy to believe politics is determined by the economy.
The Power of Speech
As things stand, and against all expectations, I believe Trump will see out his term with ease. The dream of impeachment has long comforted the opposition but has failed to materialize. The month-long investigation into Russian influences on the elections and strange financial transactions within the Trump family has failed to unearth sufficient charges to remove a president. Impeachment also requires a Democrat majority, which is far from a given, and the support of public opinion, which is even less certain.
Whether for or against Trump, American or not, we will have to live with him for another few years. But is it that serious? Despite his saber-rattling, the POTUS has not, or not yet, sparked any real conflicts whether economic, military, or civil. The world is holding up, as is U.S. society, unlike in times gone by when similar leaders wreaked real havoc on Europe.
However, is this relative stability achieved because Trump is not a fascist dictator? We can bet that if he could, he would be. And his fan club might even adapt. But this will not happen thanks to the U.S. Constitution. This sacred text and the institutions that surround it form a shield against Trumpism. Federalism, Congress, judges, the media, and civil society are all insurmountable obstacles for even the most populist president. The power of American leaders essentially lies in their words. Trump can stir up crowds with his colorful and often coarse language, but he has no way of translating speech into action. And if he wanted to bypass these institutions, no official organization in the United States, whether the armed forces, the police, the church, or federal and local administrations, would obey an illegal order. Even if Trump wanted to be Mussolini, he would only be a cardboard cut-out.
Trumpism demonstrates in both the United States and Europe that it is not easy to find the right answer to populism. So what has caused democrats to fail the world over? Populist discourse aims for the heart and the gut, while democratic vocabulary is rational and abstract. This does not mean everyone should talk Trump, but they should at least attempt to explain and educate. Yet this is far from the case of today’s democrats. Trumpism also invites reflection about our institutions; are they strong enough to resist a populist, right- or left-wing majority? In France, at least, where the Constitution changes with the seasons, we can be sure that a French Trump would be far more frightening than an American one.